Letter to the Editor

March for Justice

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Last Tuesday morning a young man, who is part of our church family, private messaged me on Facebook saying, "I know you and Tom are on your way out of our community, but I think you have a strong sense of care and love for it and it has always been exhibited. I urge you to consider participating in the peaceful March for Justice on Thursday evening." About the same time I noticed a Facebook message from another person whom I did not know. She was saying that the organizers of the March for Justice for George Floyd were looking for speakers and she thought of me. I asked, "Why me?" She said because I've known you to be eloquent and nonjudgmental and "I thought you’d be perfect to keep things calm and peaceful!" With the convergence of those messages I realized I was being called to do something bigger than I had ever done before. It would stretch me. I reached out to the organizers of the event to learn more, and by the end of the day I was committed as a speaker.

To prepare I listened, read, prayed and stilled myself. On Thursday morning I walked the March route with other clergy from our community. We prayed over the pain of injustice done to George Floyd and so many others. We prayed for the planned march, for our city leaders, for the protesters, for onlookers, for law enforcement, for peace, for wisdom, for calm.

I had begun to put down my thoughts on Wednesday, but the actual crafting of my contribution was written on Thursday afternoon, hours before the event began at 5 p.m. I had an incredible sense of calm. I knew my family, a few close friends, area clergy, and NACCC clergy were lifting me up in prayer. My prayer was that the Spirit would give me voice and breath, especially for those whose breath has been taken away.

Once I arrived at the event I gathered with the organizers and some of the other speakers. I was told that the protesters would first gather around the prayer tent which had been set up by Spencer clergy on the corner by Grand Avenue. I was asked if I would offer the opening prayer. "Yes, of course."

Hundreds of people gathered at East Leach Park. There was a buzz of energy and passion. At about 5:20 p.m. demonstrators were asked to walk from the picnic pavilion to the prayer tent. They circled the tent, and everyone took a knee. I was given a bull horn.

Kneeling in the hot sun, I prayed for justice, for peace, for calm and that each one of us would leave the event with new insight for what we can do to make the world better for all people.

Approximately 580 people marched. Many other people gathered along Grand to witness the March. Mayor Robinson spoke to the protesters in the parking lot by the police station, then the marchers returned to East Leach where they gathered in front of the band shell to listen to about 10 speakers.

I was first up. Before going up on the stage I was introduced to the last speaker of the evening. She said, "Are you nervous?" I said, "No, I'm actually very calm." I felt grounded, in the zone — with a purpose to speak of a love which I know is at the core of my being. Here is what I said:

Good evening. My name is Wendy Van Tassell. I am co-pastor of the First Congregational Church of Spencer and I chair the Spencer Pastors’ Association. While I speak on my own behalf, I have felt great encouragement from many friends as I prepared for tonight.

I grew up on the south side of Chicago. When I was in sixth grade I was selected to sing in a special citywide chorus in an operetta called “The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi” at the Ravinia Festival under the direction of Seiji Ozowa. At that time my elementary school was all white, but the citywide chorus afforded me a great opportunity to sing alongside black and Asian girls and boys. At the first rehearsal I remember the black girl seated next to me pulled back my long red hair, saying, “Oh, you do have ears!” I think it made me giggle a bit. Of course, I do. How could I sing without ears? But you see, she had never been close to a white person before, close enough to touch one. She was curious. I think we all were curious about each other. This was 1966. I was 11 years old. Racial tensions were rising all around us. I was just beginning to understand the implications of race.

I stand before you as a person who was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, so to speak. I am a woman of white privilege and cannot begin to fully comprehend what it means for my sisters and brothers of color to wake up daily to the knowledge that they constantly live with a target on their back because of the color of their skin. It doesn’t matter if you have not witnessed that happening in your life or it hasn’t been a part of your personal experience, this is the reality in this country we call the United States of America. In this place where all are by law “created equal,” we know this not to be true.

This is not a new problem. Even as the Pilgrims landed on American soil 400 years ago, Native peoples found themselves forced into subservient positions in a land that had been theirs. Domination, power and control have too often been the norm. The oppressed have been suffocated.

In the creation narrative, God breathes life into man, the breath of life, and he becomes a living being. A week ago Monday breath was wrongfully and violently taken from a man, George Floyd, at the hands of 4 policemen who, as of today, are now charged with his murder. Relentlessly kneeling upon George Floyd’s neck as he cried out the words, “I CAN’T BREATHE!” Derek Chauvin continued to press upon Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, snuffing out his life, while bystanders pleaded for him to stop.

Since then the world has erupted with cries of injustice and violence has ripped its destructive powers, stripping away lives and businesses and livelihoods. While I don’t condone the violence done in the name of George Floyd, something is desperately wrong if we are more incensed by the violence than by what precipitated it. For generations and centuries, people of color have endured abasement, denigration and abuse. They have been devalued, ignored, and dehumanized every day!

It is time that we carefully examine our hearts and our minds. Here’s what I believe needs to happen: Where there is tension, you and I have to start paying attention!

Antiracism isn’t comfortable, just like racism isn’t comfortable for black people and people of color.

Do you find tension growing within you over the events of the past 11 days, then pay attention! Listen! Learn! Love! Act! For those of us who are white, we must work to become allies for the people of color around us.

Perhaps you feel tension and even shame or guilt over past behaviors. Pay attention to that tension and start paying close attention to how exactly you are treating others. Ask for forgiveness from God and from those you have wronged and begin to act differently, courageously, for the love of all God’s children, whoever they may be!

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a Letter from a Birmingham Jail, these words: "The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?"

As a person of faith perhaps one of the greatest challenges Jesus placed before his followers to is to love our neighbors. Jesus was constantly turning the world upside down with his thinking, or maybe more accurately turning the world right side up where people would love like him, unconditionally, fully, embracing the other — always striving to be kind and compassionate, seeing Christ in everybody.

Everybody you meet is precious and loved by the One who created them. May you and I become partners and co-conspirators of love not hate, peace not fear, wholeness not destruction, healing not violence.

Earlier today a few of my fellow clergy sisters and brothers walked the route for tonight's event, praying for a righting of injustice and for a peaceful event to unfold in Spencer. As we prayed together by the police station I was compelled to touch the ground as I prayed. Holy ground is where all people are loved, honored and treated as equals. We have much to learn and so much to do. Please join me. Listen. Learn. Love. Act. It is within your power to become anti-racist. No one should be devalued, ignored, or dehumanized because of the color of their skin!

It's interesting how life plays out. When I was younger I so admired

the older women around me who possessed a sage wisdom. I wanted it for myself right then, but that could only come with time, with living, with experience. I am on the verge of retirement, one week from today. May I never stop learning, growing, stretching. May I continue to find the energy and strength to speak for justice, to be kind, and walk humbly with my God.

— Wendy Van Tassell, Spencer